"I'm telling you Xena, the new boots I'll get in Pylos will make me run fast than Hermes himself. You've won your last race."
Gabrielle kicked a stick out of the way as they made their way through the brush; she hated losing the races to Xena. It didn't matter how much of a head start she had, Xena always pulled one of those flip-combos and beat her.
"We'll see," Xena replied, smiling as she looked at the dejected Gabrielle, "they may just be my undoing." she knew it would boost Gabrielle's spirit to beat her but Xena just couldn't bring herself to lose, if not for her own pride but to save herself the days of gloating she was sure to endure afterwards.
The two women walked in a comfortable silence, enjoying the sounds of the woodland around them. The day was bright and warm, rays of sunlight burst through the canopy and warmed their skins, it was one of those days that Xena wished could last eternity. She was in a beautiful part of Greece ; with her best friend and the sun on her skin what more could she ask for?
"I mean," Gabrielle startled Xena from her day dream, "there has got to be something that I can do better than you." Xena could see Gabrielle wasn't going to let the subject go but couldn't help but wind her up; it was the day for it. She playfully poked her tongue from the side of her mouth and scratched her head with one finger.
"Nope, I got nothing." she said, laughing when Gabrielle, clearly not as amused by her actions as she was, threw an elbow into her ribs. "Gabrielle you have loads of strengths. You write better than I can ever hope to and you talk so well you could persuade the Egyptians to buy sand from you." Gabrielle's heart swelled as Xena paid her the compliment, she loved it when she could get praise out of Xena, it made everything worthwhile.
"Not to mention you are the best sock darner I have ever come across." Xena finished. Gabrielle knew it had been too good to last but couldn't help but chuckle at Xena's joke.
"I just wish I was more, you know...useful." Gabrielle said, looking around her, "You know, having some amazing skill that meant I could take some of the strain off you." Xena put her arm round Gabrielle's shoulders; she could see that beneath the playfulness of the conversation the subject was troubling her friend.
"Gabrielle, we're the two sides of the same coin, remember, you balance me. We are a team; I wouldn't be the person I am, able to do what I do without you at my side." Gabrielle smiled again and rested her head on Xena's shoulder, "I suppose you're right."
"Of course I am." Xena smiled, "Let's head over there, looks like a good place to make camp. I can hear a spring not too far from here, let's have fish for dinner."
That night, after eating more fish than she should have, Gabrielle laid by the campfire, unable to sleep. She couldn't shift her mind from their earlier conversation, she knew Xena had only been jesting but was darning socks one of Gabrielle's best qualities? That and talking for Hera's sake? She could hear Xena's soft snores but knew the slightest movement would alert the warrior princess and she would be up and ready to do battle. Gabrielle felt envy creep into her thoughts; she loved Xena but wished she could have her strengths.
"I bet," she thought to herself just before sleep came to claim her, "If I was like Xena I would be unstoppable, I bet I'd get twice as much done."
Atë watched Gabrielle yawn and turn onto her side. Her brown eyes flickered in the firelight, seeming to dance in times with the flames. She knew this would be the perfect opportunity. She'd been gone for too long, Zeus and Hera were out of the picture, distracted by some plague in Britannia and with Ares being left in charge, she had the perfect route back. She'd heard of Xena, Ares little pet gone wild, and knew bringing her down would pave her way back to Olympus where she belonged. She hadn't had a clue what to do before now, so many had gone up against the warrior princess and had paid the price, Daddy dearest most of all. Thanks to the small irritating blonde she had her plan. She could barely contain the mad laughter that bubbled at the back of her throat as she wove her charm. This was brilliant! She finished with flick of her wrist and teleported quickly, a gleeful cackle breaking free as she did so.
Xena rolled over, her eyes opening independent of each other, blurrier than usual. She blinked away the sleep that threatened to reclaim her and saw that it was still dark. Wondering why she was awake so early Xena's question was answered in the next instance when her bladder seemed to groan within her. Typical. She stuck an arm out of her sleep roll and felt around for her dress, after what seemed like an eternity she felt it and pulled it beneath the covers. The absence of the dawning sun made it a chilly start to her day and she was going to wring every bit of heat from the furs that she could. She pulled her dress over her head, letting out a large yawn as she did so. She felt the straps fall down her arms and a perplexed smile formed on her lips while she tightened them again eyes still closed. Pulling her breast plate to her Xena shuddered as the cold armour hit her still warm skin, she felt a shiver slink its way from the top of her spine to the bottom and she stood shaking it off, willing her eyes to open again. As she rose to her full height Xena felt her dress and armour slip, the latter fell to the floor bouncing noisily against the frying pan and cooking pots Gabrielle had stacked, Xena managed to get a last ditch grip on the dress and instant before her body was exposed to the morning chill. She took a deep breath, determined that today was not going to be one of those days.
"Xena?" What's going on?" a voice came from the other side of the fire, it didn't sound like Gabrielle. She had heard it before, but slightly different, it seemed to be lower than she remembered, huskier. She heard Gabrielle cough and clear her throat, "Xena? What's wrong with my voice?" Xena couldn't make Gabrielle out in the morning haze but saw a shape sit up and stretch.
"I don't know Gabrielle," Xena blinked in surprise at her own voice, it didn't sound like her at all, it was more...melodic and way too high pitched. She tried clearing her throat too, maybe they had lain too close to the fire and the soot was affecting them, "I tried putting my armour on and it just...fell." Xena reached out in front of her to get a piece of wood from the fire to use as a torch, trying to shed some light on the situation. She had to take a step forward to achieve even this most simple task, another deep breath to clear her head; she was definitely not herself this morning. As she stood with the torch she heard Gabrielle gasp, "Xena!”
Xena whipped her head around to the left, checking behind her, sure there must be someone lurking such was Gabrielle's urgency. She felt her hair move on her head, it felt strange, loose, not tied in the bun she had put in before sleep. There was nothing to her left so Xena turned her body to the right; her dress fell from her grip as she did so, her free hand clenched to make a fist. She caught sight of the fist as she raised it, it looked smaller than normal. Xena opened her hand, and saw that the whole thing was smaller than normal, delicate fingers atop a smooth unblemished palm. She turned it in different directions, trying to convince herself that it was in fact in her control. She heard Gabrielle call to her again and Xena turned, she came face to chest with...herself. Looking up Xena could not mistake her own neck and throat, her own chin, her gaze lifted until she found herself staring into her own eyes. They were alive with fear.
"Xena? Why do you look like me?" Gabrielle took her turn to study the hands that clutched her bed furs to her chest, she saw one of them reach up and felt it touch the back of her head, felt it clutching at a small leather strap, she felt hair hit her shoulders and knew without looking it would be of the darkest brown. Gabrielle felt a whimper escape her lips as realisation dawned on her, her gaze went back to the pair of eyes before her, her eyes but at the same time she knew it wasn't her looking through them. "Xena?" she whispered.
"This can't be happening, it's...impossible!" Gabrielle muttered, mind racing, knowing she would never get used to hearing her words spoken in Xena's voice. She picked up Xena's breastplate and began to fasten it, making sure it was secure before sitting on a rock and pulling Xena's boots over and loosening the straps.
"You aren't wrong, how the hell do you wear this all the time?" Xena replied, the twines Gabrielle used to secure her top kept falling through Xena's fingers as she tried to tighten them, she had them done up three quarters and decided to leave it before she ripped it off and set fire to it. Xena felt her hands return the bottom of the shirt again, trying to pull it down, she felt exposed. She let out a grunt of exasperation as she picked up her chakram and tried to holster it, finding nothing on her hip with which to do so,
"I give up!" she huffed, "This is completely impractical!" she tossed the chakram to the floor and sat down to pull on Gabrielle's boots.
Xena felt a gaze on her and was just as disturbed as the first time when she met her own eyes; she could see a smirk on her, or rather, Gabrielle's face,
"What?" she hissed.
"I think it looks good on you Xena." Gabrielle replied, finishing with her boot she stood and twirled, "What do you think?"
Xena watched her body spin in front of her and was quietly impressed at how good she looked from behind, not too shabby. She felt her sanity slip, was she checking herself out? Shaking her head Xena also rose,
"We need to find out who did this, fast." She strode over to Argo and tried to lift the fully packed saddle; she felt Gabrielle's back cry out with the strain as she tried to lift it above her head and quickly dropped it again before she slipped a disc. This was not fun, she wanted her body back and fast.
"Gabrielle?" she asked, still weirded out when she saw her own head turn in response, "Can you give me a hand?"
"Sure." Gabrielle strode over and lifted the saddle onto Argo's back with no effort at all. Xena watched as Gabrielle used her body to secure the saddle and turn to her smiling. Trying not to let her irritation show on her face, Xena grabbed her sword and scabbard slinging them over her shoulder as she mounted Argo. She needed her body back, this was ridiculous. Gabrielle was grinning broadly, clearly impressed by the strength she now possessed in Xena's body, she looked at Xena who in Gabrielle's body still managed to raise an eyebrow and purse her lips,
"Sure." Gabrielle replied and began to jog beside Argo as they made off into the forest once again towards Pylos.
Gabrielle felt wonderful as she ran; she felt the wind against her face, blowing through the hair that flowed behind her, cooling her brow. She felt the legs underneath her pulse with every stride, the muscles solid and perfect, eating the ground before her. Gabrielle felt Xena's lungs taking in the air, no sense of strain as they easily pushed the useless air back out, she felt like she could run forever. She piled on more speed, feeling adrenaline surge through her as she sprinted faster and faster, watching the brush below her feet turn to a blur, easily anticipating the tree roots that threatened to trip her. Her body had become stronger since she met Xena and she could hold her own in battle, but Xena's strength, the sheer power of her was still far beyond what Gabrielle's body could achieve, and she saw the switch as a blessing. Up ahead Gabrielle caught sight of a low hanging bough of a tree, she sped up even more before planting her right foot and leaping. Soaring through the air Gabrielle felt invincible; she caught the branch with both hands their warrior palms gripping as if she were holding nothing more than silk, powerful shoulders took Gabrielle into a spin her body naturally turning with the momentum. She landed with both feet on the branch, balanced and steady. A wide grin spread across her face as she finally understood the true extent of Xena's ability, the instincts she had perfected over the years to make her this exquisite warrior.
Gabrielle squatted on the tree bough and waited, she could hear hoof steps echoing through the forest floor and knew it was Argo, it was another few minutes however before she caught sight of her own blonde hair flashing through the trees. She stood, leaning against the trunk the tree, arms folded with a foot resting on the trunk too, loving how safe she felt even in this the most casual of poses. Xena brought Argo to a stop just before the bough on which Gabrielle was stood and looked up at herself, trying her best to seem unimpressed but feeling quite the opposite at the move Gabrielle just pulled off.
"Can you please be more careful with my body Gabrielle, I do want it back in one piece."
"Come on Xena you and I both know your body can do far more than this."
"Get down Gabrielle, we need to get to town and find out if anyone knows anything."
"Make me," Gabrielle smirked playfully.
"What?" Xena snarled back, managing with some effort to make Gabrielle's voice sound menacing, she threw Gabrielle a look that dared to her repeat herself.
"I said make me, I know I can't hear as well as you Xena but come on..." Gabrielle sniggered, hoping Xena was taking this in the humorous way it was intended. Leaning off the branch, she beckoned to Xena below, "You want me down, make me."
Xena rolled Gabrielle's eyes and got off Argo, she would show her, and maybe once she had put Gabrielle in her place they could finally do the same with their bodies, she was starting to feel really...short. Making her way beneath the bough Xena looked up, disheartened at how far away it looked, she bent her knees and swung her arms feeling bulky in the air despite Gabrielle's petite body. Coiling her muscles as best she could Xena leapt, she began to rise and everything seemed to happen in slow motion. She knew straight away she wasn't going to make it, Xena tried to turn Gabrielle's body in mid-air but failed, she saw the bough come at her and braced for impact. She caught the branch full on in the mid-riff and felt the air puff out of her lungs screaming with the force of it. She hit the ground with an audible oomph that seemed to rattle her from head to toe, making every bone shudder with the impact.
"Xena!" Gabrielle cried leaping from the tree, the novelty of landing on her feet not lost in the moment. Gabrielle fell to her knees and lifted her bodies shoulders, turning Xena over she whispered the warrior princesses name again, hoping she hadn't damaged her face. She was taken aback when a clod of leaves and debris peppered her face as Xena spat them out, spitting bits of leaf and twig in disgust. Gabrielle could see there was no blood or bones protruding and felt a giggle building in her stomach. Xena must have recognised the amusement ripple over her own features because she struggled from Gabrielle's grip and stood up, dusting herself down, once again trying to pull down the green top she wore. Barely keeping a lid on the laughter that was begging to burst from her, Gabrielle took a step towards Xena and began to pull leaves from her hair trying to avoid eye contact,
"Are you ok?"
"I..." Xena wheezed, she cut off, took a deep breath and started again, "I'm fine. Let's go." She strode over to Argo, trying to decide which hurt more, her ass or her pride. After mounting the horse (and deciding it was definitely her ass that hurt more) Xena looked down at Gabrielle who wasn't doing too well in her attempts at stifling a laugh and raised an eyebrow trying her best to look aloof.
"Problem?" she asked, Gabrielle bowed her head and shook it unable to speak lest the laughter burst out, "Good, laugh it up while you can, it's your body remember, you'll be dealing with the bruises later." Xena smirked and let out an over the top cackle and ushered Argo into a trot. Gabrielle was stunned, so much so she had no comeback and could only watch as Xena rode off into the distance. Smiling to herself Gabrielle set off after her.
A companionable silence fell between the two women as they travelled, both lost in their own thoughts. It was Xena who heard the shouts and cries first despite having Gabrielle's limited hearing. She stopped Argo and listened, straining to try and gauge a number of men but to no avail, she needed to teach Gabrielle to listen properly when this was over. She had heard enough though to spur Argo into a sprint to the crest of a small hill, the view from the top showed a small valley below, the road to Pylos carving its way through the middle. The wagon was upended, some sort of liquid had been spilled over the floor and six men wearing battered armour and wielding swords that had seen better days were bearing down on two travellers who were doing their best to hold them off, Xena could just about make out a bag of gold clutched to the chest of one of the men. She once again used her heels to spur Argo into a sprint, the horse responding instantly glad of the exertion, as she flew down the side of the hill Xena opened her mouth, "Shiiii-" the war cry stuck in her throat and she had to cough to get her breath back, hoping to Hera that Gabrielle hadn't heard she slowed Argo down a bit more than normal before leaping from the horses back and shouting
"Hey!" the fracas continued until Xena took a step further and raised Gabrielle's voice another octave,
"HEY!" The men turned and looked at Xena who drew herself up as high as she could, she wasn't much taller than Gabrielle but she felt that difference now more than ever,
"Why don't you pick on someone your own size?" Xena didn't get the expected reaction and felt her mouth fall open as all six of the men looked her up and down. Then burst into laughter. The roughest looking of them, scraggly stubble and wayward hair peppering his face replied,
"Why little lady, if there was anyone else our size here we would!" He signalled to two of his comrades, "Get her too, that horse and sword will fetch a pretty dinar."
Xena felt the familiar rage of the impending fight begin to boil her blood, that and the unexpected humiliation. She smirked, the sides of Gabrielle's mouth lifting as she drew her sword, this was going to be new, two men and the added challenge of not being her usual...self. She took position, sword raised and waited for them to attack; the smirk fell from her face very quickly though when she saw the men stop in their tracks and a wave of fear pass over their faces. Xena turned to look behind her and had to duck to avoid being knocked out by her own knee.
"Shiiiii-iiii!" Gabrielle let fly with a war cry and landed, perfectly balanced about a foot in front of Xena who couldn't help but roll her eyes.
"You're...you're Xena." one of the men stuttered, taking a step back and looking furtively behind him at the ringleader who also clocked Gabrielle, the wagon driver he had had by the throat was thrown to the side and he made his way over.
"Xena eh?" he looked the woman up and down, "So what?"
"So...you better leave those men alone and get out of here, or else." Gabrielle said, hoping that she sounded more fearsome than she felt, Xena's body or not she wasn't used to confrontation and most certainly not very good at tough talk.
"Or else what? You may be Xena but there are six of us, and even counting that irritating blonde over there it stills means there's only one and a half of you, those aren't great odds." Xena felt her blood boil even more at the insults the robber was throwing around and narrowed her eyes, " ONE AND A HALF MY ASS !" she thought to herself and ran at the man, no war cry this time but a scream loud enough break the sound barrier.
"Get them!" the leader shouted as he realised the attack was on.
Her sword felt heavier than normal in Gabrielle's hands, her arms weren't used to holding swords, let alone fighting with them what with her staff being considerably lighter. Xena didn't let this stop her bringing the blade down as hard as she could on the helmet of the first man she reached. The impact sent shockwaves up both her arms but Xena was pleased to see the man sag to the floor. She belatedly sensed another man behind her but couldn't swing the sword round fast enough and felt a sharp blow at the base of her skull take all the strength from her. She fell to the floor and felt blows rain down, wave after wave of pain washing over her until she was barely conscious. Putting her arms over her head Xena hoped that Gabrielle was faring better.
In the same instant Xena had run forward and started the fight Gabrielle found herself face to face with another of the attackers. Xena hadn't taught Gabrielle too much about hand to hand combat, fighting with a staff was always a safer approach, and she found herself circling, her opponent doing the same. She heard a cry and the sound of a body hitting the floor, it was the same cry she had let out when she had broken her arm climbing a tree as a child and she knew Xena was in trouble. Gabrielle knew she had to do something, turning her attention back to the man in front of her she decided to just wing it and shot a fist out in front of her. She was almost as shocked as the man she punched when the blow landed squarely in the middle of his face, breaking his nose and sending his eyes rolling to the back of his head, all with lightning speed. He sunk to the floor, clearly dazed and Gabrielle took the opportunity to run to Xena's aid. She could see her own body curled on the floor, in the foetal position, the rest of the robbers standing around it laying in kick after kick. Gabrielle ran over and grabbed one of the men by the scruff of his neck, the novelty of being able to lift a man off his feet not being lost in the moment. She threw him to the floor and waded further into the group choosing to try another one of those flash punches, again the blow connected and a satisfying crunch sounded as his jaw broke, he too sagged to the floor, holding his face and writhing in pain. At this point the two other men and the leader of the group noticed Gabrielle's presence and turned on her. She felt a fist hit her own face, and while the pain was keenly felt, Gabrielle didn't feel half as light-headed as she had done the time Lila had accidentally hit her with the shovel. Another blow came, this one to her ribs and this although there was no pain she knew that taking punches wasn't going to be this easy forever, she began swinging her fists again ferociously. When she could stand to keep her eyes open Gabrielle attempted to aim for the leader, hoping that bringing him down would prompt the others to stop, she got lucky and managed to strike him. Although she had been aiming for his nose, having seen how effective that strategy had been before she actually hit his throat. He choked and fell to the floor, robbed of breath, his hands grasped at his neck as if trying to tear away an invisible noose and after what seemed an age his eyes too rolled back in their sockets and he fell unconscious. Seeing their leader had been taken out the remaining two men stole a glance at each other and turned to run.
While Gabrielle was doing her best to fight off the robbers Xena had managed to peek out from under her arms and watch the action, albeit from a very unfamiliar angle. She saw the lucky shot to the leader's throat and saw him cave in before falling to the floor in a heap and couldn't help but think nice ! Even through the pain induced haze, from the corner of her eye she saw the two remaining men start to turn on their heels and, despite the painful protest she got from Gabrielle's beaten leg, managed to trip one of them. Body squealing with yet more pain Xena managed to bear down on the man and put the pinch on him.
Xena opened her mouth, wincing at the pain in Gabrielle's jaw but before she could say anything she heard a small cough behind her, "Ahem..." Xena looked over to see Gabrielle approaching, not a scratch on her which Xena was simultaneously relived and envious to see.
"Shouldn't I do the interrogating? I mean...I am...Xena." she said, squatting beside the man whose nose had begun to bleed quite profusely. Xena looked at Gabrielle incredulously, was she really going to steal the pinch interrogation too? Xena had no energy to fight; she rolled off the man and lay on the grass beside him trying to will Gabrielle's body to stop screaming at her.
"Now then," she heard Gabrielle say, "Who do you work for?" The robber looked up at his captor, his eyes watery with fear and managed to pant out that they were working for Ethicles.
"We were told to start roughing the village and its people up, they owe Ethicles protection money. If it's not paid by sunset tomorrow he'll loot the village instead. His entire army will bring down hell on those stupid villagers, they don't stand a chance." although close to the end of his thirty seconds the man began to snigger, the laughter choked off by the ebbing flow of blood to his brain. Xena couldn't stand to hear him cough out one more titter so used what little energy she could muster to upper cut the robber who grunted, but thankfully shut up. She rolled over and took off the pinch, her arms feeling heavy as lead. She felt strong hands under her back as Gabrielle lifted her, the feeling of vulnerability almost too much to bear. Gabrielle walked with Xena in her arms, looking down at her own beaten body and wondered how on Earth Xena put up with her, without a staff she was helpless, with it she could just about defend herself. She knew violence wasn't the answer but how long would it be until she was in the same position as Xena now lay? She had to toughen up. She headed into the forest to find somewhere to see to Xena's wounds and where they could sleep for the night.
Unbeknown to Xena or Gabrielle, Atë watched from the side-lines, heart soaring at how pathetic and beaten Xena was in that weak body. Ares would be pleased. She felt the air vibrate beside her, followed by a waft of fragrance that belonged to only one Goddess. Aphrodite appeared beside her, an almost worried expression on her face.
"What's wrong with Gab?" she asked her half-sister who turned, evil dancing in her eyes.
"Not that it's any of your business but Gabrielle is fine, Xena however...not so good." She cackled low in the back of her throat, a menacing sound that made even Aphrodite uncomfortable.
"What have you done?" the Goddess of Love asked.
Xena woke, a groan escaping her as she rolled over trying to blow Gabrielle's blonde hair from her face. She felt like every part of Gabrielle's body was bruised and couldn't help but wince as she sat up, she looked around for her friend and found that she was alone in the camp. Hearing a rustling in the bushes to her left Xena could do nothing but try and sit up a bit more, she looked around for something to attempt to defend herself with, it seemed Gabrielle had liberated her chakram and sword. She let out an audible sigh of relief when her own body appeared through the brush. Perched atop her shoulders was a large deer, held there with very little effort, she saw a wide grin across her face; clearly Gabrielle was pleased with her catch.
"I figured we have a few hours to kill before sunset so we may as well eat while we come up with a plan. We should have venison more often Xena, your body's built for hunting!" Gabrielle began to prepare the deer and cook it over the fire, soon the tantalising smell of roasted meet was wafting through the air which in itself seemed to renew Xena's vigour, the aches and pains subsiding a little. A short while later that vigour was enhanced even more after a bowl of steaming venison stew was presented to her. They both ate heartily and it was Gabrielle who broke the silence first.
"So I was thinking about Ethicles."
"Yeah I say we go for a head on attack, we get some villagers and pound him into the floor. Really teach him a lesson." Gabrielle punched a fist into her palm and carried on eating. Xena couldn't believe what she was hearing, since when did Gabrielle fight first and ask questions later. Things had gotten serious; they needed to switch bodies back now more than ever.
"Are you serious?" Xena asked, "Gabrielle you of all people should know that fighting is a last resort, especially when it involves putting the people we are trying to save in danger."
"Xena with strength like yours they won't be in any danger! I'll head the attack and it will be over before you know it."
Xena gave it up as a moot point, she fell silent and felt concern knot tightly in her stomach. Gabrielle had been enjoying herself too much and Xena didn't like the over confidence, she was reminded of how she had spoken herself to her kinsfolk so long ago. Gabrielle was losing her sense of self, her own morality, and if she lost that Xena knew she would lose herself too, she couldn't carry on without Gabrielle, the real Gabrielle, at her side.
After their meal was finished Gabrielle suggested going into Pylos to which Xena reluctantly agreed, she could at least go with Gabrielle and keep her as on course as possible, and maybe find a few answers to their own predicament at the same time. Gabrielle's body however had other ideas.
After settling back down, propped up against a tree and with her dagger by her side, Xena watched Gabrielle once again saddle Argo, she longed, not for the first time today, for her body back. Her height, her strength...her clothes, the outfit Gabrielle owned certainly was more style over substance. Gabrielle came over to Xena, her friends' spirit shining through Xena's eyes,
"How're you doing? Will you be ok?" she asked, putting her hand to Xena's cheek. Despite the fact it was her own that touched her Xena could feel Gabrielle's gentleness in it, and was grateful.
"I'll be fine, just be careful. I want you...and me back in once piece." Gabrielle chuckled and kissed Xena on the forehead; she jogged to Argo and rode off towards Pylos. Xena sat where she was for a few moments making sure Gabrielle was gone before throwing back the fur she had over her knee, grabbing the staff that was next to her and fighting to her feet. She was about halfway there, ribs grinding uncomfortably together when Aphrodite appeared next to her in her usual puff of gold dust and plume of sickly-sweet aroma.
"Ooo Xena, you look rough." Xena snapped her head up,
"Aphrodite? How do you know it's me? Did you do this? I'll..." Xena lunged forward and made a grab for the Goddess but was met with an ugly protest from her ribs once more.
"Whoa! Chillax Xena, this is so not my style!" Aphrodite raised her arms in the air to show her sincerity before making her way to a nearby tree stump and sitting, lustrous legs folded, "You I am afraid are the victim of my bogus half-sister Atë. She like, gets a kick out of mischief, it's why Zeus banished her. She set fire to Olympus once you know."
"So how does her being banished involve me and Gabrielle?" Xena asked, now stood, leaning on Gabrielle's staff.
"Well she knows daddy dearest is off dealing with the plague in Britannia and she knows Ares is kind of running things in the meantime. She wants back in the fold and thought tinkering with you and Gabby would get her in Ares' good book, as if that would ever work!" Aphrodite tutted incredulously, touching her hair, making sure it was sitting properly, waiting for Xena to digest the information.
"So get her here then," Xena replied after a moment, "We'll tell her it'll never work and get her to switch us back before Gabrielle hurts herself...and me."
Aphrodite took a sharp breath through her teeth, "Yeah," she exhaled, looking sheepish, "There may be a slight snag with that Zee, you see Atë works differently to the rest of us. She doesn't cast spells as such, she uses peoples own desire to create havoc and she got the idea from Gabrielle. Apparently Gabrielle wishes she was you, she's like jealous or something, although with her cheekbones I cannot understand for a minute why!"
Xena felt her eyes narrow, and hoped on Gabrielle's face the look was as intense as it felt, "So what do we do?" she hissed through clenched teeth.
"Long and short of it is, unless Gabrielle wants to switch back you're looking at this being a one way trip." Aphrodite concluded, folding her arms. Xena took a moment, deciding whether hitting the Goddess of Love would be detrimental or not. She decided it would be and instead calmed herself,
"Thank you Aphrodite, I never would've guessed that it was Atë that had done this, I appreciate your help." Xena began to hobble off into the forest, a plan already formulating in her mind.
"Think nothing of it Xena," Aphrodite replied, standing, "I couldn't leave Gabrielle in your body, Xena just doesn't look good on her." a bright spark of gold later and she was gone. Xena couldn't help but smile as she fought her way into denser woodland, trust Aphrodite to put helping them down to a crisis of fashion.
Gabrielle rode into Pylos and left Argo at the blacksmiths before making her way to the local tavern. She opened the door and quickly descended the steps into the main area. The place stank of ale and sweaty man but she knew it would be the best to find the fighters she would need for her, and surprisingly enough no-one had approached her, despite outward appearances they seemed to be gentlemen. She made her way over to the bar.
"What'll it be?" the inn keeper asked, using quite possibly the dirtiest rag Gabrielle had ever seen to clean the inside of a goblet.
"Er..." she smiled, "Nothing for me thanks, just had water. I'm here about Ethicles." Gabrielle noticed quite a few ears prick up at the sound of the warlords' name, "My name is-"
"Xena." said a voice from behind her, Gabrielle turned to see a stately man approach her, "Er...right", she nodded.
"Are you here to help us Xena? We have heard of your great and noble deeds and have been praying to the gods for a saviour to come. Are you our saviour Xena?" the man choked up with emotion, clearly feeling the pressure of the impending threat from Ethicles. Gabrielle cleared her throat,
"I, Xena, am here to help you stop the evil warlord Ethicles and restore peace to your land." she couldn't help but break out into a giddy smile when the entire tavern erupted into applause and hoots of pleasure. " This is certainly a different reaction to what Xena got earlier when she tried to take on those thugs in my body " Gabrielle thought. She was glad she could take the hero reins for a while, and was sure that once Xena had recovered from her aches and pain would enjoy a bit of time off. She turned to the nobleman and began laying out her plan.
As the last few hours on sunlight split the trees Xena huffed and wheezed as she lifted another tree branch into position. Using what little strength she had she pulled back the vine she had attached and secured it around a low hanging branch on an adjacent tree. She looked back over her shoulder and picked out the other dozen traps she had managed to set in Gabrielle's absence. These coupled with the few trip wire traps she had also managed to set would make a good back up if things got too tough out there. While her spirit was willing, aching, for the bloodlust of battle, her current body could not withstand another encounter with Ethicles men. She made her way back through the forest and stood at the edge, a short distance from where she had fought the robbers earlier on. She saw to her left, silhouetted against the setting sun, her own body at the head of a group of villagers, striding forward on the road. She looked to her right and saw a large group of men approaching, steel blades reflecting the setting sun, chinks of light reflecting from polished armour. Xena whistled long and low and saw her own head turn in the distance; she knew that Gabrielle would be able to pick her out with her own keen eyesight. She drew back a little to ensure Gabrielle was the only one who knew she was there.
Gabrielle saw Xena fall back into the shadows of the forest in a swish of blonde hair and was glad her friend was safe, it was always so worrying when Xena went off to do battle, Gabrielle never knew if it would be the last time she saw her friend. Before she saw the men approach she had felt tiny vibrations in the gravel underfoot, again amazed at how attuned Xena's body was. They appeared ahead of them and Gabrielle swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry as adrenaline started to surge through her body. She drew Xena's sword,
"Hold the lines, wait for them to come to us." she shouted. They waited.
Xena watched as the first of Ethicles men broke ranks and ran at the rag tag group of villagers and towards Gabrielle who stood firm, " Good girl " Xena thought, glad Gabrielle wasn't tempted into making the first move. Xena saw Gabrielle swing her sword in the closest of the men's general direction and felt a wave of relief as she saw it hit its target, the man falling to the ground. She dared to let herself begin to believe they were going to survive this.
Gabrielle saw the rest of Ethicles men rush forward when the first one fell, a liquid unit all bearing teeth and steel lusting for her blood and that of the villagers she had mustered. It hit her then, she had drawn those men into this battle, their blood was on her hands if they died. Had she really allowed herself to stray so far from her morals and beliefs, all because she had Xena's strength and power? Lost in her thoughts Gabrielle didn't see Ethicles bearing down on her, teeth gritted and sword raised high. He was a big man, all sinew and bulging biceps that struggled against the constraints of his leather and shiny armour. She saw him loom towards her from the corner of her eye and had time to raise her sword in defence before the shattering blow was struck. The sheer power of it tore her sword free from her hands and it fell to the floor in a clang of metal Gabrielle couldn't help but hear clearly over the savage battle around her. Her wrist seared with pain, it felt as if every tendon had been torn, ripped and pulled free, trying her best not to pass out with the pain Gabrielle looked up at the warlord.
"So," Ethicles boomed, "You're the mighty Xena who fought off six of my finest men?" He bellowed laughter and looked around him. The Pylothian villagers had noticed Gabrielle laying on the floor and, thinking it was Xena herself who had been bested, began to side step as Ethicles men stopped fighting to watch their Lord at work. Ethicles raised his sword again and Gabrielle knew this was it. She closed her eyes and whispered, "I'm sorry, Xena." She heard Ethicles grunt with the force he put into his downward swing, but did not feel the blow. Gabrielle heard cracking wood and snapped her eyes open, Ethicles sword was buried in her staff, she looked over her shoulder and there was Xena, battered and bruised but still saving her life!
"Get the villagers into the forest." Xena said, shoving with all her might against Ethicles, freeing his sword and drawing his attention to her. Gabrielle got to her feet and looked around her, the battle had resumed and there was carnage wherever she looked. She tried to shout but felt Xena's throat close over, the command stuck in her throat, she was frozen in place.
"Now Gabrielle!" Xena shouted, loud enough to snap Gabrielle from her trance. Ethicles came at Xena sword whistling as it cut through the air. She managed to avoid the first blow but the man followed through with his hilt and Xena felt the solid metal hit her jaw. She felt her legs start to drop out from underneath her but knew she could not pass out. Biting her lip to stave off the dizziness she avoided another swing from Ethicles and counter-attacked with a sharp blow to his nose, blinding him momentarily. She took the opportunity to take her own body by the waist " This is never going to get normal " she thought and once again told Gabrielle to get the villagers to the forest. Feeling Xena against her, Gabrielle was able to draw in a deep breath and yell the command; the villagers at once began to run towards the forest.
"Come on Gabrielle we've got to stay ahead of them." Xena said, supporting her own body as best she could while trying to run herself, the stars only just beginning to fade from behind her eyes. Gabrielle seemed to find herself again and took some of the weight from Xena's shoulders. They managed to reach the forest before the villagers, and directed them to a small clearing where they all huddled together clearly afraid, some wounded, most in shock at the butchery they had witnessed. Xena and Gabrielle stopped and Gabrielle fell to the ground, clutching her wrist which had already begun to swell,
"Xena I-" she began.
"Gabrielle not now," Xena interrupted, squatting down beside her, even at that moment tugging on her top absent-mindedly, "You need to follow this trail get the villagers in deeper, try and keep them calm and for Zeus' sake don't let them go anywhere." Xena stood up, something that was clearly an effort; she fought back the wince of pain she wanted so desperately to let out and grabbed her chakram from Gabrielles belt. In a rush of blonde hair and limp she made off back towards the army that had followed them. Gabrielle used the tree behind her to get up and once again used Xena's commanding voice to instruct the villagers who obeyed immediately; she followed them deeper into the woodland, that familiar knot of worry settling in the pit of her stomach.
Xena crept back through the forest as quietly as she could, she was limping badly, it looked like an earlier wound had re-opened but luckily there didn't seem to be any blood Ethicles could use to track her. She spotted a group of soldiers poking around in the underbrush, and talking to each other loudly. Off to her right a bit further Xena saw several more groups of soldiers all doing the same thing. Xena, stooped as low as her ribs would let her and strained her eyes, lining up a shot with her chakram wasn't usually this difficult but that crack she'd taken from Ethicles and Gabrielle's already less than keen eyesight wasn't making it easy. " Still, I do like a challenge ." she thought to herself and drew her chakram. Although very tempted to try her war cry again Xena opted for silence this time when she let the chakram loose.
She watched as the chakram (thankfully) flew, straight ahead of her and counted the vines off as they snapped. Ethicles men began to quieten down as they heard the crackle of branches and movement in the trees above them. Three branches fell from the trees and took out at least a dozen of Ethicles men, catching them all in the torso, knocking the wind from them. They slumped in unison to the floor and lay there. Xena ran past them and triggered the snare traps she had set, four men who had been slightly ahead of the group cried out as their ankles were snagged and they were pulled into the air. The four men looked around them, looking for their captor. One spotted a small woman with long blonde hair coming towards them, she didn't look like a warrior, she looked a bit well...puny.
"Who're you?" he asked, trying to stay focused as the blood rushed to his brain, tilting his head to see the blonde woman better.
"I am Gabrielle, partner of Xena, fearsome tactician and saver of souls." Xena replied, relishing the fear in the man's eyes as he hung there,
"And you-" she said as she threw the chakram, "-will go and tell Ethicles to draw back, or see all his men caught in my traps!" the chakram split the rope holding the young soldier and he fell to the ground with a hmph! He scrambled to his feet and ran, stealing a look over his shoulder to get another glimpse of his captor.
Gabrielle was pacing as best she could, wishing there was another way to let out this nervous energy she had, she stopped dead when she heard shouts in the distance, men calling to one another in high voices. Gabrielle hushed the villagers so as to hear better but the voices were too muffled to hear what they were saying although it was clear to Gabrielle they were excited. Gabrielle felt her anxious knot tighten and she ran off in the direction Xena had gone, hoping against hope that she was ok. She stormed through bushes and trees, barely feeling the branches whipping against her legs and face, Gabrielle cradled her swollen wrist to her chest to protect it from further damage as she ran, head racing from side to side trying to spot her own blonde hair against the greens of the forest.
"Xena!" she called mind racing with images of Xena lying broken on the forest floor, of Xena trying to fight a group of warriors and losing. Gabrielle cursed her vivid imagination as she saw steel puncture flesh in her mind's eye. She ran on. A few moments later she saw a chink of light reflect through the trees, she stopped and watched the chink come again. Gabrielle was almost certain it was the sunlight reflecting from Xena's chakram. She called out and ran towards the source of the reflections which had strangely stopped. Gabrielle leapt over a fallen tree branch, Xena's long graceful legs stretching easily and landing in perfect balance even without her arms to help. She had landed in a small clearing and looked around, expecting to see her own body helpless on the ground, a rustling to her right swept Gabrielle's attention. She managed to catch a glimpse of a large fist heading towards her, and then all was dark.
Ethicles chuckled softly as the might Xena lay unconscious before him,
"I'm going to enjoy taking you apart piece by piece, Xena. I'll have a trophy for each room in my fortress". Drawing his knife Ethicles chuckled again as he knelt down and pressed it against Xena's arm, drawing it back slowly, grinning as beads of blood appeared. So engrossed was he that he didn't hear the quick footsteps approaching, didn't hear twigs cracking and leaves being crushed under red boots as they sprinted towards him. Didn't hear the dull thud as the right foot of the red boot pushed from the fallen tree branch, propelling the body it carried forward. He did hear the silent air being cut by a high pitched war cry and he certainly felt the collision between those red boots and his jaw. He fell backwards, knees still bent, and as his eyes rolled backwards into his head and as consciousness was stolen from him he saw blonde hair and full lips turned into up into a cocky grin.
Xena ran to Gabrielle and fell to her knees beside her, momentarily forgetting the odd situation of lifting her own head into her arms, worried more about the mind and soul that were contained within. She stroked Gabrielle's cheek,
"Gabrielle? Oh please Gabrielle, wake up." She tapped Gabrielle's cheek hoping to rouse her and felt the breath rush out of her when her friend stirred.
"Xena?" Gabrielle murmured, fixing Xena's piercing blue eyes on her own looking back at her, "Xena...I-" she lifted her hand, which Xena grasped and squeezed affectionately.
"Hush now, its ok, it's over."
As the women composed themselves, Ethicles groaned and sat up holding his jaw, moving it back and forth seeing if it was dislocated. Xena stood up and enjoyed the flash of fear she saw in the warlords eyes.
"Who...who are you?" he stammered, looking from who he thought was Xena to this small irritating blonde in front of him. Irritating but strong blonde.
"I am Gabrielle, fearsome sidekick to the mighty Xena." Xena answered with that same cocky smile, she looked behind her to Gabrielle who smiled back. Ethicles stumbled to his feet, "Fearsome indeed, you certainly do pack a punch."
"Unless you want another taste I suggest you leave." Xena said, gesturing towards the edge of the forest, "And take your army with you."
Ethicles considered this for a second but knowing he was beaten and fearing another dose of "Fearsome Gabrielle" he nodded, walking away.
Xena smiled and turned back to Gabrielle, who was trying to stand, finding it hard to do so with only one hand to steady herself. Xena supported her and together they made it to the fallen tree branch where they both sat, taking a moment to breathe.
"Xena, I'm sorry." Gabrielle said, tears standing in Xena's eyes, making the blue shimmer brighter than ever.
"It's ok Gabrielle, all's well that ends well. Besides, you're a hero, Ethicles will fear the name Gabrielle and so will anyone who hears the story about how powerful you are, and how you kicked his butt."
"No Xena, I've learnt being a hero isn't about how powerful you are its knowing when to use the power you do have. It's about knowing when to fight and when NOT to fight." A tear shook free and rolled down Gabrielle's cheek as the emotion of the day finally hit her. Xena wiped it away quickly, this time thinking how strange it was to be wiping tears from her own cheek. The day had been long, but wasn't over yet, they still had to find Atë and get her to switch them back.
"Gabrielle knowing when to fight and when to run all comes down to experience, I pray that you will never have the same experience I do. It changes you."
Gabrielle smiled through her tears as she replied, "I hope so too, being me is way less painful. There are definitely benefits to letting you do the dirty work. I think I'm better off just being me." The two women smiled at each other and Gabrielle pulled Xena into an embrace, Xena couldn't quite decide if being the smaller person in the embrace was better or worse. She put the thought from her mind, wanting to enjoy the moment before they had to move on and find Atë.
The moment was short thanks to Aphrodite appearing in front of them and punching the air victoriously. A far gloomier looking Goddess appeared next to her, clearly not sharing in Aphrodite's happiness.
"YES! In your face Atë! I knew my girl would come through!" she said with another fist pump.
"Atë?!" Xena and Gabrielle said in unison, both standing up, wounds and bruises forgotten.
"Yes, it's me," Atë said glumly, rolling her eyes, clearly irritated at her plans failure, "Silly girl...it was all going well and then you had to ruin it...how irritating!"
Gabrielle and Xena looked at each other then back at the pouting Goddess, "So…are you going to switch us back?" Xena asked.
"Yeah yeah yeah I'll switch you back," Atë sighed, waving her hand lazily in Xena and Gabrielle's general direction, "Back to the drawing board I suppose." She disappeared in a plume of green smoke. A small tingle bloomed in Xena's spine, almost too light to notice but increasing in intensity, it began to move as it blossomed, first up and then back down her spine. She felt light headed and saw a small spot of white light in her mind's eye, this too got bigger as the shiver increased until it got so bright that Xena had to actually close her eyes. She felt a rush, as if she was flying through the air and when she opened her eyes again she felt...taller. She brought her hands up in front of her eyes. Warrior hands. Her hands. She smiled and looked to Gabrielle who was also checking her body over, making sure it wasn't another trick. They looked at each other and laughed, the overwhelming happiness at being back in their own bodies flowing out of them. They embraced, and immediately winced as their bodies reminded them of the battering each had taken. They broke apart, smiles still plastered to their faces.
"Thanks again Aphrodite." Xena said, happy to hear her own voice at her command, "It could have taken us an age to figure out Atë had done this to us."
"No worries!" Aphrodite replied, sauntering over, "It would have taken you a bit longer but you two would have been ok. Looking good Gabby!" Aphrodite lifted Gabrielle's blonde hair and let it flow through her fingers, "Stick to your own look honey, that leather get-up just aint you sweet pea!" She looked to Xena who pursed her lips and raised an eyebrow, "No offense Xena, I mean, some people wear angry well but Gabby it just doesn't suit your disposition!" Gabrielle put her arms round Xena and said, “I've definitely realised being a sidekick is the way forward."
"Totally." Aphrodite smiled; she winked and then was gone in her usual cloud of gold dust.
"Let's get out of her, find a place to rest." Xena said putting an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders, "Hopefully tomorrow won't be quite so eventful."
Gabrielle slipped an arm around Xena's waist and they began to limp towards the edge of the forest.
"You gotta teach me how to take a right hook like you do."
Xena chuckled, "Sure." she playfully punched Gabrielle in the bicep."Ow! Later, teach me later!"
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